The Evolution of Automobiles

Automobiles are four-wheeled motor vehicles used primarily for transporting people, commonly propelled by an internal combustion engine that burns gasoline or another volatile fuel. In addition to the body, chassis, engine and drivetrain, automobiles also have many systems that control or monitor vehicle operation and performance, including safety features, air conditioning, power steering and brakes. Research and development engineers and scientists are employed by the manufactures and suppliers of automobiles to continually improve their products and develop new technologies.

Modern life is nearly inconceivable without access to an automobile. Whether going to work, getting groceries or running errands around town, the ability to travel independently without relying on other people or public transportation saves time and energy and allows individuals to make the most of their free time. Having a car also makes it possible to reach destinations that are not well served by public transit, especially those in rural areas or locations far from commercial centers.

Early in the 20th century, the automobile transformed daily life in America and throughout much of the world. The number of automobiles increased steadily, and the industry rapidly grew more complex as manufacturers developed more sophisticated and reliable vehicles. In addition, the automobile introduced a host of social changes. It stimulated participation in outdoor recreational activities and spawned a variety of leisure industries, including hotels and motels, service stations and roadside restaurants. It ended rural isolation and brought urban services, such as schools, doctors and hospitals, to remote parts of the country. And it spurred the construction of highways, one of the largest government expenditures ever undertaken.

During the first decade of the 20th century, the United States far outpaced Europe in automobile production. The country’s vast land area ensured great demand, and its tradition of industrial manufacturing made it easy to adopt the mass production techniques pioneered by Ford, whose Model T put cars within the reach of middle-class Americans.

By the 1930s, market saturation and the steady introduction of innovative technology had reduced the number of active automotive companies. Those that survived were large and consolidated. This process continued through the 1950s and 1960s, when new forces redirected the course of automobile evolution. New technologies, such as the electronic media and laser, ushered in an age that has been dubbed the Age of Electronics. By the 1990s, the automobile was a familiar fixture in the American landscape and still accounts for the majority of passenger vehicle miles driven. Despite the increasing popularity of alternative forms of transportation, there is no sign that automobiles will become obsolete. In fact, the growth of newer forms of transportation is making it more difficult to own and operate automobiles. This, combined with the continuing increase in the population, means that the need for efficient transportation will continue to grow. This will require substantial investment in new infrastructure and technology, and will likely result in a gradual shift away from the traditional automobile.